The story, when it emerged last September, was a shocker: Ernest Withers, one of the most iconic and important photographers of the Civil Rights Movement, a man who intimately documented countless historic events, was also an informant for the FBI, passing on information about everyone from local Memphis gangs to Martin Luther King.
CNN’s Soledad O’Brien knew Withers the way everyone else did: through his pictures. Withers’ snapshots of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse and striking Memphis sanitation workers holding signs that say “I Am A Man” are two of the most famous photographs of the Civil Rights era. He became the premiere black photographer of the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the 1950s and 1960s, and gained unparalleled access to the leading figures of the day. (One of his most famous pictures is a rare snapshot of Martin Luther King lying in his bed and reading a newspaper.) The news that Withers had had a double life from 1968 to 1970 as an FBI informant was as stunning to O'Brien as anyone else, and led her to make the latest documentary in her “In America” series.
The special, “Pictures Don’t Lie,” focuses on Ernest Withers: his life, his work for the FBI, the effect that the revelations about him have had, and, finally, the photographs that made him famous.
“Everyone knows his work and nobody knows his name,” O’Brien said of Withers in an interview with The Huffington Post. “People would look at me blankly when I told them [what I was doing], and then I'd describe his pictures and they'd go, 'oh, right!'"
O’Brien said that the “many layers” of the story were what drew her to it: a man whose photographs were undeniably valuable—including some, such as his picture of Emmett Till’s body, which were nearly earth-shaking—and who was deeply entrenched in his community was also watching that community and telling the FBI what he had seen. For O’Brien, the story allowed her to examine the Civil Rights era from many different angles—the relationship between law enforcement and the black community, the black journalism of the period, and the reaction of some of the movement’s leading luminaries to the startling news of Withers’ FBI ties.
O'Brien talked to historians, FBI agents, activists, and members of Withers' family for the special. Their reactions varied widely. Some, like comedian and activist Dick Gregory, told O’Brien that Withers was like Judas for what he had done. For Gregory, collaborating with an agency that he felt was trying to destroy the movement was an act of severe betrayal. (The history of the FBI’s targeting of the civil rights movement, through its Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, and others, is well known.) Others, such as former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, were much less angered by Withers' actions.
Withers' family, O'Brien said, was "stunned and hurt" when the news emerged. They had to contend not only with what the revelations meant for Withers' legacy as an icon of the Civil Rights movement, but also with what they meant for his relationship with them.
The real question—why did Withers become an informant?—is, as O’Brien put it, “unanswerable... he took all the explanations he could give us to his grave.” But she thinks there are potential answers to that question beyond the simplest one: that Withers was sympathetic to the FBI's activities.
“Withers had a background in law enforcement before becoming a professional photographer,” she pointed out. “He had a giant family. Money was always tight.” (Withers often did not get paid for the use of his pictures.) In addition, the FBI was not shy about exerting pressure on people, as former New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell told O’Brien in the documentary. He recounted a time when the FBI asked him to become an informant, and told him that if he didn’t, they would subpoena him before a grand jury and essentially tell the world that he was an informant anyway. (Caldwell refused.)
However, there are no clear answers, and Withers is not alive to tell his side of the story. What was left for O’Brien to do was to piece together his story—from his time in the Army during World War II to his initial work for Jet Magazine to his ascendancy as a photographer to his decision to inform.
O'Brien said that one of the most rewarding aspects of doing the documentary was the welter of FBI files she was able to look at. Withers was exposed because of a single, un-redacted line in a file which identified him as part of the agency's "ghetto informant program."
“I’ve always loved documentaries that are based on that kind of research,” she said. The files were “very heavily redacted,” she continued, but what emerges from them is a man who is “almost catty” in his messages to the FBI—dishing gossip and back-biting about people.
One example of the type of information Withers gave can be found in the report of The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis paper which broke the story of his FBI ties in September. The paper described what happened the night Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968:
The grief-stricken aides photographed by Withers on April 4, 1968, had no clue, but the man they invited in that night was an FBI informant - evidence of how far the agency went to spy on private citizens in Memphis during one of the nation's most volatile periods.
Withers shadowed King the day before his murder, snapping photos and telling agents about a meeting the civil rights leader had with suspected black militants.
He later divulged details gleaned at King's funeral in Atlanta, reporting that two Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffers blamed for an earlier Beale Street riot planned to return to Memphis "to resume support of sanitation strike'' - to stir up more trouble, as the FBI saw it.
O’Brien and her team talked to experts who assessed the quality of the information Withers was giving the agents. They told her, she said, that Withers was providing “kind of the color commentary” to the action going on in front of him, rather than a lot of information they could move on. His value, O’Brien said, came from his position as a trusted figure and confidante who had a good memory for people, names and faces.
Moreover, she said, some of the people who emerged as targets of Withers’ told her that the information he gave the FBI was not true. Chief among these was Sweet Willie Wine Watson, the leader of the Invaders, a militant group in Memphis and a prime target of the FBI’s. Watson told O’Brien that the things she read out from the Withers files about him were false. O’Brien said this led her to wonder whether or not Withers was “intentionally misleading” the FBI in a sort of double-agent role.
Ultimately, O’Brien said she returns to the title of the documentary. The only things about Withers that have not shifted in the wake of the revelations about him are the pictures he took.
“The pictures don’t lie,” she said. “That is the answer, regardless of anything else.”
For O’Brien, the picture that stands out is one that shows a pair of black attorneys and a pair of white police officers standing side by side in a courtroom, waiting for the judge’s ruling.
“What I love about that photograph is, where did he have to be to get that picture?” O’Brien said. “He was behind the judges’ head. I love that photo. It’s brilliant, and it underscores the access of this individual. If you were in a position where the judge is cool with you going behind him to take a picture, you are one of the most inside people in all of Memphis, Tennessee—which explains why the FBI looked to him.”
“Pictures Don’t Lie” airs on Sunday at 8 PM Eastern.